After graduating high school in 1975, Rob and Vincent and I continued to record our albums on my Dokorder 7140 until one day in 1977, Rob managed to afford a real professional multi-tracker: A TEAC 2340 – and we were off to the races. Late that year Rob and I moved into a house together in Santa Clara, and there we both started recording with real drummers and other musicians.
Rob and Vincent formed a band and I, green with envy, put together one of my own. Mine was called Suburbia – a name I’d used in prior bands just out of school. I played piano and Don Sleight – a magnificent guitarist who played in that first version of the band – played guitar. The band was rounded out by mad genius Tim Stahlke on drums and stoic Don Flippen on bass.
The songs on Three Dimes---Too Many were all mine except for the instrumental Summit, which was written by Sleight (who co-produced the album with me). This was the only Suburbia album on which every track was just the four of us, the actual band. It included my first “keeper,” Bleeding Heart Song, which was among the first 30 or so songs (all of them awful but this one) that I wrote all by myself in my first year of writing songs - during my senior year, mostly on the upright piano in the school auditorium before and after classes.
Every time an adult heard Bleeding Heart Song, they were amazed that a 17 year-old could write something so romantically world-weary…which seemed hilarious to me since I hadn’t yet even kissed a girl…
I moved down to Los Angeles in the autumn of 1978 to seek my fortune as a songwriter. It netted an introduction to Martin Cohen (mentioned later), who eventually signed me to my one and only publishing deal – but that would take another couple of years to consummate.
I lasted six months or so in SoCal, living with relatives while I pounded the pavement of Hollywood knocking on publishers’ doors. I moved back to the Bay Area in the spring of 1979, whereupon the boys of Suburbia reunited and we recorded our second album. ALMOST all of it was just like the first album (just the four of us) but on a couple of the cuts we had help from others.
This was the final Suburbia album that wasn’t just me using a band name. Don Sleight again co-produced, and he co-wrote two of the songs on the record. The album’s title comes from a war movie I once saw as a kid (I have no idea what the title of it was), where one soldier taught another how to recognize a German spy pretending to be an American soldier by asking him “Who’s Popeye’s girlfriend?” If he didn’t know, you knew he was a rat.
I thought it might be clever to take that idea around the curve as a metaphor for romantic paranoia. Or something.
The building (our apartment was on the ground floor, around the stairs and down at the end of the parking lot) I shared with my brother Richard for most of 1979, and where most of the recording for Intelligentsia and No More Strangers was done.
Well then everything blew up as soon as Who’s Popeye’s Girlfriend was done.
June – in other words, summer – hit and, at 21 going on 22, love hit harder. Like a brick to the teeth. And I went insane. I mean, truly insane. I wrote and recorded every song on this album - finished the entire thing - in something like six weeks in June and July.
By this time I had decided that it would be clever to continue recording under the name Suburbia even though I was producing and writing everything. I somehow thought hiding my wild and erratic songwriting behind another identity would mediate the insanity. And make no mistake, this was, for reals, the first of two wild, unwieldy…yes CRAZY albums borne of overdramatic love, lust, fear, joy and an addiction to what can only be called constant drama.
It coincided with the wildest summer my friends and I had ever experienced, or would ever experience again. ALL of us went nuts in the Summer of ’79, but Intelligentsia was my fever dream, thrown in with everybody else’s.
Sleight, Stahlke and Flippen were all on board again – but so were Tim Cupps and Vincent Merkhajeb and Darrell Etter and all sorts of guest stars from the gang who all had one freaky summer, then in one way or another, headed off for the Rest of Their Lives.
A bunch of us in what became an iconic photo from 1979, at “Darrel’s Beach” (which I’m pretty sure is actually called Shark Fin Cove), where we would have overnight bonfire parties, get drunk, argue, pine over whatever needed to be pined over and let ourselves be as free as children for the last time. This photo, with the magic jumping fire, was taken by a young man – one of the gang – who took his own life not two years later – it always felt to me that the Summer of ’79 never left him (or he could never leave it) – and that those few short months, more than any other of his attributes, linger as his memory.
Yes, it was time for a double album, because…well..you know…double album! Written and recorded during late autumn and into the holiday season of 1979 (it was released just before Christmas), this was Intelligentsia on steroids. Everything on it is a reflection of the mad love affair I knew was soon to end and the mad summer that had just ended, wherein the world felt like a giant helium balloon we were all sucking on…only now, as fall and winter chilled the air, the funny voices didn’t sound funny anymore.
AND – in places on No More Strangers, the songwriting, though none of it carefully crafted, was starting to show signs that I might be starting to know what I’m doing. All original Suburbia band members appear on the album in different places (Sleight’s roaring guitar solo on the cover of O Holy Night is particularly stunning), but for the first time drummer Eric Gunther appears (on 6 of the 20 songs), and there is substantial work from Merkhajeb and Cupps.
And then…silence. For a while. Once the holidays passed and 1980 suddenly burst into the foreground like a fist to the jaw, it seemed clear that it was time to make the Big Change and fully, finally, move to Los Angeles. My six-month stay there in ’77-’78 had resulted in one big potential break: A music attorney and publisher,Martin Cohen, had taken a liking to my songs and encouraged me to continue to send them to him – which I did. Martin was the brother of producer and manager Herb Cohen, who (along with Martin) was famously sued by Tom Waits over licensing rights – but I didn’t know about any of that and if I had, I wouldn’t have cared).
I sent Martin all three of the albums I recorded in 1979, and even though they were flawed, he continued to praise me in letters and phone calls and encouraged me to write a new album of songs for him to pitch to record labels and recording artists. With the wildness of 1979 behind me and cold hard reality nipping at my heels, I moved to Hollywood, into a roach-infested walk up near Paramount Studios, finally bought my own TEAC (an A-3340) and set out to fulfill Martin’s assignment.
It took most of a full year to get it done. Writing suddenly was very, very difficult – like pulling teeth. I recorded most of the tracks in that hot, messy walk-up, with Stahlke (who at the time lived in the apartment just down the hall) as well as Gunther and Cupps and Merkhajeb - driving down to record when I had songs ready – but I also hauled the TEAC back up to NorCal so I could capture some tracks by Rob Dobbins and Don Sleight. The album was finally completed in early 1981 – and it remains one of the more mysteriouscollections I ever created. But it did nab me that publishing deal…
Yeah, that photo is blurry – but it was a blurry time. And hey, blurry is pretty much what life felt like at the time. Now signed to Martin Cohen’s Third Story Music, a producer (John Rhys) was brought on to select four of my songs for a demo to go to record labels and artists’ managers. My guess is that they were also looking at possible record labels for me, but I have no way of knowing for certain. At my initial meeting with Rhys, he challenged me to pare down one of my songs (Fallen Angel) to make it more accessible – but he also told me to write an entirely new song – a hit – and he told me to accomplish both tasks in the space of one week. And by God I did it. After I showed him that his assignment had been met, Rhys booked his studio, Hollywood Central Recorders on North Cahuenga Avenue in Hollywood, where for the first and only time in my life I cut songs in a big-time Hollywood recording studio with seasoned studio session musicians – live – me at the piano, with guitar, bass and drums supplied by the players. I remember the feeling of being surrounded by magic as we recorded these. Cry About Me is the “hit” I wrote for Rhys – all things considered it ain’t bad (I had Barbra Streisand in mind to sing it when I wrote it - painstakingly – in a small community park one afternoon in Hollywood). It never got picked up, and my deal with Third Story Music was over after a year. But at least I have these demos to prove I was “there,” wherever “there” was.
What a difference another year made. It’s difficult to explain how these things happen – but with Straight, I not only came into my own as a songwriter – I began the longest sustained creative period of my life. Between the beginning of 1982 and the beginning of 1986, I would write and record eight (8) new albums of original material (including two double albums) encompassing 130 new original songs. And it all started here.
Recorded entirely in Northern California (mostly in a miserably-tiny third floor studio apartment in Oakland I shared with my girlfriend at the time), suddenly the songs were sounding … whole… complete…mature, even. Of the 22 songs on Straight, at least 10 of them were strong enough to end up on live set lists and future recordings for years into the future. Something had happened that was difficult to put my finger on, but I could feel the change. And by the time my girlfriend (and God bless her for this) booted me out, forcing me back to Los Angeles with my tail between my legs in June, I was ready to abandon the Suburbia name forever and move forward under my own name.
Straight was the last of my albums to feature all four of the original members of Suburbia as players, though Sleight and Stahlke would return for later albums. The only cuts on this one with just me, Sleight, Stahlke and Flippen are Big Man On and Get Straight.
The building at 3833 Telegraph Avenue in Oakland where Straight was (mostly) recorded. Our apartment was behind the four windows on the upper right.
When I got back to Hollywood, things were jumping. I moved back into the same building I’d abandoned for Oakland just 8 months prior, but this time into a downstairs unit with more room and a long, long closet that I converted to a control room for recording and mixing.
Rob and his band, the Radio Dogs, had moved to L.A. just before I’d left the year before, and so not just Rob – but his brother Joe, the inimitable Timmy Cupps and the band’s drummer, Mike Atlee, were there and available for recording. As soon as I got settled, I recruited Atlee to play drums on the basic tracks for Wasteland Boogie.
I worked graveyard shift at a bank mailing facility, slept very little during the day and spent all of my free time writing and recording this album. Eventually most of the Radio Dogs got involved and helped out. Tim’s fiancée Debbi even chipped in, singing the role of The Girl in the opening song.
With this record, I entered into a creative zone I hadn’t experienced before, haven’t since and likely never will again. Now motivated for the first time to impress myself and no one else, I was on a mission to produce an unpredictable and continuously evolving body of work. And the roller skates were ON.
The front stoop of 5129 Marathon Street in Hollywood, where we recorded no less than four of my albums, two of Rob Dobbins’ albums, one of my brother Richard’s albums and an album I recorded with Sandy Dobbins (then Sandy Armstrong) Joe’s better half.
After Wasteland Boogie was done, in September of 1982 I immediately embarked on a double album project to be released just after the first of the year in 1983. The first two sides would be a new sound for me – all electric, no keyboards – raw, just two guitars, a bass and a vocal. Sides 3 and 4 would be a more traditional “studio” album, with full band including keyboards. All of it was intended to have the vibe of the Hollywood I lived in at the time.
After I got started on the project, the electric sides sounded so unique (for my music, anyway) that I decided to release them as a stand-alone record – and Sides 3 and 4 became the House and Home album. The electric songs were finished first, so they came out first, right around the holidays in 1982, as Waiting.
The band is essentially me and the Radio Dogs (with Cupps on guitar on Side 1 and Rob Dobbins on guitar on Side 2 and a young guitar hero who we hung out with named Rick Schutte also contributing) and me on the other guitar on all songs. We recorded the basic tracks live at Falcon Sound in Hollywood, where the Radio Dogs rehearsed. Overdubs were done back at the apartment on Marathon Street. Several of the cuts were written on the spot. The music for Tide Pool, as I recall, was written during a recording session while Tim Cupps and Mike Atlee took a cigarette break – and that song turned out to be one of my most durable and popular songs during my touring years.
The band on Waiting – L-R: Rick Schutte, Joe Dobbins, Rob Dobbins, Tim Cupps, Mike Atlee, Yours Truly.
Maybe the most atmospheric record I ever released. Marinated in the stories, sights and sounds I was immersed in as a resident of East Hollywood, House and Home was my first album where not even one of the songs on it were about my personal problems (finally!). Several were story songs (my first ones); most were presented from a character’s point of view. And ALL the characters filling these songs are far more colorful, in my opinion, than characters I created in later songs.
Some of these characters are shocking; most are very definite in their world view. Harry Lanier is an exception to this, though – the first time I specifically set out to hold back any clear lines about the main character and rather make his surroundings – the vibe – that which grabs and sticks in the mind. And in that song and a couple of others on this album, the melodies and chord changes start to become richer and even a little more complex.
But in the end it’s the characters - the losers who don’t know they’re losers; the dreamers who only comprehend reality through imagination; the plotters, the assholes – the street preacher in The Star-Spangled Banner – those folks – that make House and Home so unique. And it closes with an out-and-out anthem, at the conclusion of which I shout with glee. So there.
Me and Rob Dobbins on Thanksgiving morning 1982 in front of the Marathon Street apartment building, during the time Waiting and House and Home were being recorded. Rob and Marcy Lyon lived in the apartment above mine. This is one of my favorite photos of all time. Rob and I went through some real tough stuff and remained friends through it all – he will always be family in my heart.
1983’s was another crazed summer – 1979 all over again, but through the lens of someone who had four years of seasoning, which means I didn’t necessarily handle it all any better in the moment, but I was certainly able to process it all a little more cogently both while it was happening and in its aftermath – and that seasoning first showed itself in the songwriting – the development of which I somehow managed to not allow to be affected by all the madness.
Right about the time House and Home was being completed, Mike Atlee, Tim Cupps and Joe Dobbins, who had been playing with the Radio Dogs, noticed that the band was not playing much – and I was hot to play live. So we worked out a deal - they would back me up, with my name out front – but they could choose the name of the band. “Certain Monsters” was a crossword puzzle clue that was offered as a suggestion by our friend Marcy – and the boys liked it – so Mark Humphreys and Certain Monsters was born.
We played live all over Southern California for about a year – and we played a lot, in what was left of what had been a hot New Wave scene just a few years before. This album was a real trip. Noticing we had a gig scheduled for late September at Club 88 in West L.A., I decided (in late July) that I’d write a complete album’s worth of songs before that show and that we’d use that show to record it – bing, bang, boom, a whole new album overnight!
And while there are a few glitches here and there, I’ll be damned if we didn’t pull it off – I wrote all eleven songs in a matter of three weeks or so, then we rehearsed the living hell out of them until the night of the show – no breaks, no punch-ins – just the way it went, in real time.
We loved this place – and its owner, Wayne Mayotte, who held on to the club long after its late ‘70s heyday – the place smelled like a cat box and Wayne sold only jug wine and cheap beer from behind the bar, but it was a real stage and we were real rock stars – at least in our own minds.
A Flyer. Back in 1983 bands handed out flyers. Made of actual paper. That you had to hold in your hand, and give out to people on street corners. And place on windshields in parking lots. Those were the days. Right?
Ah, yes, and the second album borne of tragic love. The first one, Intelligentsia, from four years previous, essentially was a primal scream – not too many tunes on it that were reflective (or all that memorable, if one is being honest). But this one – Labors – if I do say so myself, covers the same basic territory – i.e. the notion that this Fiery Love Which Burns Holes in Your Eyeballs is fleeting and doomed to failure, but ultimately worth the corrective lenses – in a quite lovely way. And the songwriting is so much stronger.
Two of the songs, Someone Else’s Heart and Hello Again, became staples of my live sets in my later years of performing. Take it from me, if your heart is going to be broken, it’s always just a little bit easier if you can walk away with a work that not just you, but others, can relate to. In that regard, this album marked a turning point – because this is the first batch of my truly personal songs that have touched listeners who have no idea as to the experiences of mine from which they came. That’s an amazing thing to a songwriter.
1984 was the year that Rob Dobbins and I first started working together as musical partners – in a band we called Motel Six. It started out as the four Radio Dogs and me – and then when Tim Cupps and Mike Atlee moved back up to Northern California, it got tightened into a quartet with me, Rob, Rob’s brother Joe and a quick series of drummers that finally settled down to Greg Bush. But Greg didn’t join up until ’85, and so while we were trying to find our voice as a group I cobbled this little beauty together.
Assembled from a few old Tim Stahlke drum tracks and a few new ones from Mike Atlee before he left town, Please contains some very unique sounds (a song in 7/4 time, which I still don’t know how I managed to write is one example; the use of one of the earliest drum machines on some tracks is another) – but also has possibly the best plaintive love song I ever wrote or recorded – When the Dream Ends – which could have been written for Broadway and which features maybe the most controlled and emotional vocal I ever committed to tape.
But the album also has soul (The Shadows of Your Love, I.C.U.), regret (the original version of Bakery Sale), sex (Roll On) and – hold the phone – cover songs (one by Johnny Cash and one by Robby Dobbins)! Recording was done at my new apartment on Franklin Avenue in Hollywood, where I ended up living for more than a decade – and our newly-rented rehearsal space in West Los Angeles, where we could rehearse and record 24 hours a day if we wanted to because it was in the middle of a mini industrial zone. I had some very late night/early morning recording sessions there.
My most ambitious work by far, Middle Class is in some ways the culmination of everything I ever wanted to do with a double album. Divided into four distinct parts, Sides One and Four feature a band of friends recorded up at a house in the beautifully shaded Santa Cruz Mountains where Mike Atlee, Tim Cupps and Tim’s wife Debbi lived at the time. We recorded 11 songs up there in a couple of days (finishing them off back at the West L.A. rehearsal studio), with Mike on drums, Joe Dobbins on bass and then Tim Cupps and several other guests on guitar.
One of those guests was my old buddy Don Sleight, who played live, without edits, with the band on Love at First Sight, and absolutely shredded that sucker – it was Don’s final appearance on any of my records. Side two was all acoustic – no drums. Side three was all keyboard, bass and drums (with Greg Bush on drums), with just a hint of guitar here and there. The themes were almost entirely derived from memories of growing up in…here comes that word again: suburbia.
This album contains my favorite of all my songs – Back on the Sauce – a nasty, menacing life lesson in cruel relief – disguised by jauntiness – that disturbed me every time I sang it and haunts me even now. But I knew the character and I think this may have been my own notice to myself that the time to stop drinking was nigh.
Okay, I admit it – this was just a bunch of stuff I had laying around with nowhere to go at the time, so I stuck it on this so it could all be in one place and easy to find. Odds and ends from the previous 7 years. The oddest cut on the record is No Story, a nervous breakdown to a beat that I still have no idea why I even attempted. But okay fine – there’s some other stuff on this that’s pretty good. Really!
The last album of the first part of my songwriting life. Completed in early 1986 as Motel Six was not playing live much anymore – but had that rehearsal studio (which we had dubbed “Dogma Probe Sound,” after the art rock band with whom we shared the space) at which I could write and record at all hours of the day and night; Rob and Joe and Greg were available, and I knew I had one truly solid record left in me - this one.
And by “solid” I don’t mean the best necessarily – I mean at this point I had learned how to make an album, and there are absolutely no cringe-worthy moments on it, not even for a second. Everybody played spectacularly. The arrangements are sparse but not overly lean. The songs are all good. And that was that. And then the band played a few more live shows. And then we made one more record of everything we knew (the album Next Gas 29 Miles).
And then we broke up.
And I spent most of the next four years working my office job during the day and getting sloppy drunk every night – and then after I sobered up, three more years trying to figure out how to make songs again. But I learned. I learned.
In 1988, in the middle of my “dark” period, I got a bonus at work – my first bonus ever – enough money to purchase a professional recording console – a TASCAM 388 eight-track reel-to-reel all-in-one system, on which I would end up eventually recording all my remaining albums, and the albums of many others. I also bought some good mics, a keyboard and a really good drum machine.
Trouble was, in 1988 I was in a deep funk and could not manage to get out of it. I had convinced myself that I was washed up; that I was now too old to get a record deal; my dreams were trash; that I had nowhere to go. So I didn’t do much other than eat and drink. A lot. But in 1989 my best friend, who was also an alcoholic, stopped drinking. He almost died and had to go to rehab to save himself. And even though I continued drinking, something did shift.
That year I wrote and recorded two songs on my new equipment – the original version of The Phoenix and Me – and the original version of Rainbow. Unearthing these a few years ago, I noticed not only how good they sound, even though I was so miserable at the time – but more than that, I heard, loud and clear, the distinct messages I was sending to myself back then – 1) there’s a rainbow coming into view; and 2) it won’t be enough to simply overcome my addiction - the hard part will be sustaining sobriety.
I’m still stunned at the notes I hit on Rainbow – it’s a damn fine recording – and so is Phoenix – and so a couple of years ago I released both as a single to note a marker – a borderline, if you will – between my former life and the life that began when I got sober.